This time last year, for the first time in history, a prosecutor was jailed for knowingly sending an innocent man to jail, highlighting a new trend in criminal justice.
In recent years, there has been a steady steam of stories surfacing about instances of actual innocence and wrongful convictions. While these stories are generally both sobering and uplifting, many fail to emphasize that in many of these cases, the prosecutor—the individual sworn to protect the interests of “the People”—commits some form of misconduct.
A normal reaction to hearing about a prosecuting attorney playing a role in incarcerating an innocent person raises questions like “are they disciplined?” or “are they liable to be sued?” Surprisingly, the answer to the first question is “rarely” and to the second is “nope.” In fact, a recent study shows prosecutors withholding evidence are almost never disciplined, and a couple of years ago, a case called Connick v. Thompson has all but ensured prosecutors will remain absolutely immune from lawsuits arising out of cases they prosecute.
However, something interesting—and incredibly groundbreaking—occurred last year: a former prosecutor (he was serving as a judge at the time of his conviction) was sentenced to 10 days in jail as a result of lying to the court in a case he had prosecuted about evidence he was intentionally withholding from the defense.
While this story is not exactly the hot news of the decade, it is demonstrative of a sea change in the criminal justice system. For example, over the last few years, California has seen a handful of propositions that either free individuals who were incarcerated based on certain offenses covered by an overly harsh three strikes law, or even reduce certain felonies down to misdemeanors. And California is not alone: Oregon and Alaska have recently joined the ranks of states that permit recreational use of marijuana.
While the connections between a convicted prosecutor and the decriminalization of certain acts or substances may seem remote, overall the attitude of the American people seems to be clear. As a whole, many seem to be open minded, saying farewell to the days of the “war on drugs” and cold-hearted “law and order.”